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Seven Ways to Help Your Children Thrive During Summer

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The Time magazine cover story (August 2, 2010) declares "The Case Against Summer Vacation" and it gives us as parents one more thing to feel guilty about. Saying that summer is romanticized, the words on the magazine cover continue: "all that downtime is making our kids fall behind, especially those who can least afford to."

If you can get past the headlines and read the story by David Von Drehle, it is really quite good. It makes a point that is often lost in the debates about the achievement gap in the U.S. For example, there are studies conducted by Harris Cooper of Duke University revealing that all students lose about a month in math skills during the summer, while low-income students slip as many as three months in reading comprehension compared with middle-income students. Another study conducted at Johns Hopkins finds that while lower-income students and higher-income students make similar progress during the school year, lower-income students tend to fall back during the summer and these differences begin to add up over time. This explains about two-thirds of the achievement gap between more and less advantaged students by the ninth grade.

This phenomenon has a name that might compound our guilt as well: "the summer slide." Whether we are well-off or not, none of us wants our kids to fall behind during the summer. And during these hot and humid "dog days" of summer, when we catch our kids "vegging," texting, watching TV, playing video games, or simply whining, "I'm bored," what are we to do? The Time magazine story describes a number of excellent summer programs that counteract these trends, but what if we don't live near one of these programs?

Here are seven suggestions, based on the decade of research I have reviewed and conducted for my book, Mind in the Making. Not surprisingly, these also incorporate the principles in the summer programs that Time features. And they are all low-cost or no-cost activities that you can do in whatever time you have with your kids.

1. Help your children pursue their interests. Last weekend, I went to an open-mike night at a roadside stand in my neighborhood. As it turned dark, a mother of three children went up to the mike. She told the audience that she had recently been hospitalized and her illness had made her realize that she had always wanted to sing. Though she had never stood up before a crowd before that night, she said, she was now going to try. And try she did--she had a stunning voice! But it shouldn't take an illness for us to find something we care about doing or to help our children do so either. Judy DeLoache of the University of Virginia notes in her studies that all children have intense interests when they are young. So plan times with your children for them to pursue an interest.

If your children don't seem to have an interest, help them develop one. For example, on a Saturday, have a meeting of sorts and say: "Today, each of us is going to pick one thing we want to do--that's affordable and doable and that's how we are going to spend this Saturday." You might find yourself visiting vintage clothes stores (that was my daughter's plan when she was asked this question) and you might have to find something to amuse yourself there if vintage clothes aren't your thing, but the joy my daughter found was worth it and I got to do my thing too, which was photographing.

2. Help your children make plans and follow through with them. Recently, I asked on my Facebook page and my Twitter account what parents did when their children said they were bored. Parents' answers fell into two categories. One group of parents said that their children were never bored--they kept them so busy. The other group of parents said that they helped their children help themselves identify things to do. One parent helped her child make an "I'm Bored" list of things he liked to do and her son turned to that on a regular basis. Another parent wrote that she created a notebook with ideas and games. Giving children (from the preschool years and older) responsibility for making plans and following through on these plans involves what researchers call "executive functions" of the brain, functions that take place in the prefrontal cortex. Executive functions are always goal directed. Many studies have found that children who develop executive functions are much more likely to thrive now and in the future.

3. Have a family game time. Many games help children develop executive function skills, which besides being goal directed, also involve paying attention or focusing, remembering the rules, thinking flexibly, and resisting the temptation to go on automatic. These can be a big jig-saw puzzle that you spread out on a table, a game of Scrabble, card games, I Spy, or Simon Says (but play it with a twist, asking children to do the opposite of the directions you call out). Family game times can also involve being active, such as sports or tossing a ball.

4. Have family story time. Select books that you all want to read but read them aloud and discuss them. Studies have found that the children who read during the summer are less likely to fall behind. But don't just read the story, talk about it. Ask the children why they think the characters in the story acted as they did. You are teaching them the skill of perspective taking when you do that.

5. Use mealtimes for conversation. Pick a letter of the alphabet and when it is your child's turn, have him/her talk about something that begins with that letter. The rest of the family has to guess what the child is talking about. This activity helps children develop the skill of communicating.

6. Create a family project that is meaningful. The programs that the Time story described mostly involved projects. Is there something you could do in your community to make it a better place? When we did this in our family, we looked over the possibilities and decided that we could join a community effort to cook for people who were ill. Even little children can join an activity like that.

7. Be a learner yourself. Children are more likely to become self-directed engaged learners when they are surrounded by people who are learning. Whether it is getting interested in how your children learn and extending their learning or whether it is your own interests, children learn to live what they see, not just what you say.

The notion of summer vacation originated in the agrarian economy when kids were needed to work in the fields, but this notion is obviously outdated. What's not outdated is retaining what's best about summer. David Van Drehle urges that modern day reformers should retain what's best about summer when they make it educational--"the possibility of fun and freedom and play." He even calls this "stealth learning." But this shouldn't be just in summer. We all--children and adults--learn best when learning is self-directed, meaningful and yes, challenging but fun too!